MG Takes on Thursday

This is my weekly meme celebrating amazing middle-grade books, now with a re-vamped banner!

How to take part:

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence. 
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

This week, I’m celebrating …

Written by Peter Bunzl
Cover Illustration by Lia Visirin
Published by Barrington Stoke

Favourite Sentence from Page 11:

“Learn from the masters in this book. Then, the next time we meet, you will be good enough to beat me.”

This book in three words:

CHESS, FAMILY, ADVENTURE

The Clockwork Queen is a gripping, action-packed historical adventure which I absolutely raced through as I was so invested in Sophie’s life.  This is both a heart-breaking and touching story of family and friendship that gives a fascinating insight into the place of chess in 18th century Russia.

On her tenth birthday, Sophie Peshka’s father, Ivan, a chess grandmaster, leaves her and her mother after an invite from the Empress, Catherine the Great, to journey to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to teach her son how to play chess.  Sophie, herself a chess prodigy, loved playing chess with her father so, when he leaves her his board and a copy of his book, Masters of Chess, she continues to perfect her skills in his absence.

After Sophie and her mother stop receiving letters and money from Ivan, she discovers that he has been imprisoned by the Empress, and their lives become much harder.

Sophie longs to make the long journey to the Winter Palace to rescue her father, so when an opportunity arises, she agrees even though it may place her in great danger.   She travels to St Petersburg with the owners of an incredible chess-playing automaton, the Clockwork Queen.  Can a Queen outplay an Empress in a contest where lives are at risk? 

This is a brilliantly fast-paced, exciting adventure – with danger, tension and surprises – which really drew me into the world of a young chess prodigy determined to seek justice.  Sophie is an incredibly sympathetic protagonist.  She loses her father to the whims of a powerful ruler, but continues to perfect the game both she and he love, in order to survive and in the hope that she will eventually be reunited with her father.

I really enjoyed the setting of 18th century Russia under the rule of Catherine the Great; the introduction of the automaton chess player; and, the insight into the game of chess which my nephew has tried to teach me, but with not much success!

The illustrations are stunning and complement the story beautifully, really evoking this period of history, the fascination with chess and the character emotions.

The Clockwork Queen is a thrilling, action-packed adventure that is perfect for readers of 8+.

Thank you to NetGalley and the Publisher for an e-ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

I’d love if anyone who wants to give this meme a go would comment in the comments box and include a link to your post so I can visit, comment and find some great middle-grade recommendations. If you do create a post and are on Twitter, and would like to share your post, please use the hashtag  #MGTakesOnThursday so I can find it, read it and share it!

WWW Wednesday

I’m still reading When Women Were Dragons which I am finding so much slower than I thought; however, it is a fascinating read and concept. I’m also reading Wished which is a really fun read which I’m really enjoying. I love the Attlee the talking cat! I’m listening to When the World was Ours which is a very powerful, thought-provoking read. This is one which will no doubt bring tears!

I’ve finished reading Our Sister, Again which I absolutely loved: an utterly fascinating read. I will be posting my review shortly.

I didn’t get to this one last week, so I’m hoping to read it next.

What are you reading? Have you read any of these?

WWW Wednesday

I’m not sure what happened to ‘I can only read one book at a time’ me! I’m continuing my read of When Women were Dragons which I am enjoying, but I’m finding it a much slower read than I’d thought it would be. Maybe that’s just because I’m so used to the pace of middle-grade! I’ve just started Our Sister, Again which I think is going to be one that brings tears! The Middle Grade Marvels book club read this month is Ghost Squad which I’ve had on my TBR for ages, so am so glad it was picked this month. I’m really enjoying this which has left me with lots of questions, and a definite need to keep reading! I’m loving the magical and supernatural themes and the Dominican folklore.

I finished reading Secret of the Shadow Beasts and have posted my review. This is a contemporary fantasy adventure that I really enjoyed and I can definitely see it appealing to lots of the children in my class.

If I don’t sleep the entire weekend after SATs this week, I hope to read Seed next.

What are you reading? Have you read any of these?

Review: Secret of the Shadow Beasts by Diane Magras

Written by  Diane Magras
Cover Illustration by Vivienne To
Published by Penguin Young Readers/The Dial Press on 14th June

Secret of the Shadow Beasts is an exhilarating, action-packed fantasy adventure that kept me gripped throughout as I was led into a world of danger, secrets and terrifying beasts that kept me on the edge of my seat. 

12-year-old Nora Kemp almost loses her mother in the same way that her father was killed three years previously – with a single venomous bite from an umbra – a shadow beast.  These frightening creatures roam throughout Brannland between the hours of twilight and dawn leaving people with no choice but to remain indoors during those hours in order to remain safe and protected. 

Hope of defeating the Umbrae, and preventing attacks, rests with a group of children who are immune to the beasts’ venom, children who are taken away from their parents at the age of seven to train to become knights, ready to do battle with the beasts.  Nora had been tested when she was seven and proved to be immune, but her father had refused to let her train.  However, after the incident with her mother, she decides to leave home and train to become a knight.

On arrival at Noye’s Hill Castle, where the knights live and train, she feels unwelcomed by the other knights, but immediately proves herself when she is tested in a simulation fighting umbrae.  However, instead of training to become a knight, Nora finds herself becoming the newest knight of the Order of the Hawk.

And so begins an incredibly exciting, fast-paced, perilous adventure as Nora joins her Order and soon takes part in her first duty where she is thrown into a fight against surge after surge of terror-inducing Umbrae in different parts of the country.  Will the Order succeed in keeping themselves and the people of Brannland safe?  Will they discover the truth behind the ever-increasing population of Umbrae?  What secrets lie hidden with the depths of the Castle?

I loved the blending of contemporary and fantastical through the setting, use of gaming and the brilliantly-drawn creatures which felt very real. I also really liked the inclusion of an environmental message around the need to protect natural habitats. 

Nora is a wonderful protagonist who finds herself thrust into a world she has heard of, but of which she has no real knowledge.  She enjoys gaming and credits playing an RPG game, Warriors of the Frozen Bog, with her adept skills in fighting the Umbrae.  Whilst Nora has a difficult start with her Order, I really enjoyed the building of trust, fierce loyalty and camaraderie as they bonded.  This group of diverse children are incredible, overcoming their fear and showing so much courage, resilience and determination in the face of all-encompassing danger. I enjoyed getting to know each of them with their different personalities, backgrounds, motivations and interests. 

This fantasy adventure sparkles with friendship, heart and courage in a world of danger, secrets and revelations.  A magnetic read for young adventurers and gamers of 9+, and is one that I will definitely be adding to my class library.

Thank you to the author, Diane Magras, for providing me with an e-copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

April Wrap-Up

I really enjoyed April as I got to enjoy a few days away in the Cotswolds which was just gorgeous. I definitely want to go back there again. I also went to see my second ever opera: Madame Butterfly which was performed by the Ukrainian National Opera of Kyiv. It was very emotional at the end as they sang the Ukrainian National Anthem. I also watched Heartstopper which kept me up way too late as night as I just had to keep watching another episode – a truly wonderful feel-good, charming show that I will definitely be binge-watching again! This has been a good reading month with lots of books I really enjoyed.

Books I’ve read:

I’ve read 15 books this month, physical copies, e-books and audiobook.

NetGalley:

My Feedback Ratio is at 98%. I’m edging closer to my 100 Book Reviews Badge, having reviewed 85 books now. I’ve been approved to read two books this month. I have read The Clockwork Queen and will be posting my review soon.

Books sent by publishers:

I have been lucky enough to have been sent these books by publishers this month. Five are books I’ve been sent to review and I won Wished in a Twitter Giveaway! I have read and reviewed Firesong.

Books bought:

I’ve bought books this month.

How has your reading month been? Have you read any of these? Have you any of them on your TBR?

MG Takes on Thursday

This is my weekly meme celebrating amazing middle-grade books, now with a re-vamped banner!

How to take part:

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence. 
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

This week, I’m celebrating …

Written by  Vashti Hardy
Cover Illustration by George Ermos
Map Illustration by Jamie Gregory
Published by Scholastic

Favourite Sentence from Page 11:

They only recently decided to have their own rooms: Maudie’s tools and various inventions overran their old room, and she complained that she would always trip over his pile of books, so they decided it was time.

This book in three words:

ADVENTURE, FRIENDSHIP, FAMILY

I’m a huge fan of the Brightstorm series, so I was desperate to get my hands on the stunning final instalment, Firesong and, oh my goodness, what an epic adventure it is! Yes – it is gripping, exciting and action-packed, but it is also poignant and heart-warming:  an adventure which makes your heart both race and sing.  Absolute perfection!  This is a series that has really captured my heart and, whilst I am sad to see it end, I am lucky enough as a teacher to be able to continue to share it with children and to use it in class, so I feel that I will never quite say goodbye to it – and I’m really glad about that! 

Arthur and Maudie have settled with Harriet and Felicity at 4 Archangel Street after returning from their expedition to the Eastern Isles.  The twins are disappointed when they fail in their bid to win an item belonging to their mother at an auction of explorer artefacts.  In an effort to cheer them up, Harriet offers them the chance to go on another expedition and, this time, they can choose where to explore …

After a visit from their aunt, Eudora Vane, where she makes a kind gesture and a suggestion, they decide to explore the Volcanic North where their parents had discovered the Brightstorm moth, their family symbol. Leaving behind the unrest that is stirring as the result of a new faction in Lontown Society, the Aurora crew begin their adventure with a couple of new crew members aboard:  Gan, the fearless niece of some old friends, and the rather nervous volcanologist, Professor Hugo Waynecroft.

And so begins THE most thrilling, edge-of-your-seat, unputdownable adventure that swept me into a world of discoveries, secrets, suspicions, danger and treachery.  Whilst the twins are on a journey to learn more about their past, Eudora is intent on destroying their future.  As the Aurora travels further north, its crew find themselves in dangerous situations, the twins are called onwards by a song only they can hear, onwards towards a creature that shouldn’t exist who is need of their help and protection.  The unexpected twists and revelations were breath-taking, and kept me eagerly turning pages, desperate to continue the adventure and not leave it, even for a moment. 

The world of The Great Wide that I feel privileged to have explored with the Aurora crew throughout the Brightstorm adventures is so richly imagined, and the Volcanic North is no exception – both beautiful and dangerous with its volcanic sands, valleys, frozen waterfalls and a whisper of moths!   As always, I adored following the journey on the gorgeous maps.

Maudie and Arthur have definitely found a place in my heart, and I have adored seeing them grow and mature in this final adventure.  These two have caused me plenty of tears, both of joy and sadness, and I think this is a real testament to the quality of the writing that I care so much about them.  I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there was an encounter with their Mum’s sapient moth that brought so many tears – incredibly poignant and beautiful!  Arthur and Maudie’s interests may be diverging as they find their place in the world, but their love for each other is stronger than any obstacles life may through in their path, even when these are a natural part of growing up!

The themes which are explored throughout the story are perfect for opening up opportunities for discussion:  themes of friendship and family and of challenging gender stereotypes; environmental themes related to habitat destruction and the need to find renewable energy sources; and themes of extremism, activism, colonisation and elitism. 

Firesong is the perfect ending to what has been a truly unforgettable series that I have no doubt has captured the hearts and imaginations of so many young, and not so young, adventurers.

Thank you to Harriet Dunlea and Scholastic for providing me with an early copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

I’d love if anyone who wants to give this meme a go would comment in the comments box and include a link to your post so I can visit, comment and find some great middle-grade recommendations. If you do create a post and are on Twitter, and would like to share your post, please use the hashtag  #MGTakesOnThursday so I can find it, read it and share it!

WWW Wednesday

I’m reading When Women Were Dragons as the synopsis really intrigued me. I haven’t read much yet, but has really caught my attention. I think this will be a fantastic book on empowerment for women, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it leads. I’m listening to Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep which is wonderful. I think this is the first book by Philip Reeve I’ve read, and I’m really enjoying the lyrical style. It feels like it is steeped in myth so I’m looking forward to finding out what happens. I’m reading an e-book of Secret of the Shadow Beasts by an author whose previous books set in Scotland I’ve really enjoyed. This one feels very different – much more fantasy rather than historical based – but I’m loving it.

I’ve finished listening to Between Shades of Gray which is the most incredible story which taught me so much about a period of history I wasn’t familiar with. The author’s note at the end was a great addition. Its definitely a harrowing read that brought lots of tears and anger. I am in awe of the strength and resilience shown by so many as they fought for survival in such harsh and cruel conditions, searching for hope in a hopeless situation. I’ll definitely be reading more from this author. I also finished The Secret Wild which was a wonderful environmental story. I’ve posted my review.

I’m hoping to read Our Sister, Again next.

What are you reading? Have you read any of these?

Review: The Secret Wild

Written by Alex Evelyn
Illustrations by George Ermos
Published by Walker Books on 5th May

The Secret Wild is an exciting, action-paced eco-adventure, rooted in friendship and courage, that completely captivated me as I became enveloped in the wonder and mystery of this enchanting adventure.

10-year-old, plant-loving Fern Featherstone spends her time travelling all over the world with her botanist parents as they hunt for rare plants for medical research.  However, when her natural curiosity lands her in danger in the Amazon Rainforest, her parents decide to send her to stay with her uncle as they assume that she will be safer in London than going with them on their next trip … how wrong could they be?

On the flight to London, when a crate opens, a tiny plant rolls towards her.  It seems to understand her, so she decides to keep it:  surely no-one would miss one little plant?  She hides the plant from her eccentric, kind-hearted Uncle Ned, and names it Special.  Special isn’t the only unique plant in London, but the others are much larger and are taking over famous London landmarks.  Many believe this is the work of the Guerrilla Gardener, but who is the Gardener and what is their goal?

When Special becomes unwell, Fern is determined to seek a cure for her friend, and that involves finding out more about where Special has come from … so begins a brilliantly fast-paced, gripping adventure as Fern and her new friend, Woody, find themselves at the heart of an intriguing mystery … a mystery brimming with danger, tension and unexpected twists and turns.  Someone is intent on rewilding London, but will London survive the rewilding?

I really enjoyed the environmental message that was woven throughout the story where we are given a fascinating insight into the awe and wonder of plant life, and the importance of looking after our plants and trees, maintaining balance between humans and nature so that both can thrive. 

I really liked both Fern and Woody, who find a bond through their loneliness, despite their very different upbringings and interests.  Fern has been uprooted from her life travelling the world with her family, and has to navigate both friendship and settling in to a new life in London. Woody has also had upheaval in his life, and is finding it difficult to deal with these changes.  I really enjoyed the tentative and natural building of their friendship which felt really authentic.  They both face their fears and find the courage to stand up for what they believe in, and to help each other when desperately needed.  I just have to add that I absolutely adored eccentric Uncle Ned – a real knight in shining armour!

This is an exhilarating, heart-warming nature-inspired adventure that is sure to delight children of 9+.

Thank you to the Publisher and NetGalley for an e-ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Blog Tour Review and Giveaway: Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna

Written by Skye McKenna
Cover Illustration by Saara Katariina Söderlund
Interior Illustrations by Tomislav Tomic
Published by Welbeck Flame

Thank you so much to Lorraine Keating and Kids Welbeck for inviting me to be part of the Blog Tour for Hedgewitch.

Giveaway

As part of my stop on the Blog Tour, I am hosting a #Giveaway over on my Twitter account (@marysimms72)where you can find entry details. The prize is a gorgeous hardback copy of Hedgewitch which will be posted from the Welbeck Office. The Giveaway is open to anyone in the UK and Ireland. Good luck to all those who enter!

Review

Hedgewitch is a gorgeously bewitching adventure that completely enthralled me:  an adventure brimming with witchy delights, Faerie tricks and nature-inspired magic.

Twelve-year-old Cassandra Morgan is not allowed outside the boundary of Fowell House, a boarding school where she is unpopular, bullied horribly and alone.  Cassie’s mother had left her there seven years previously, asking her to wait for her return.  When she is called to the Headmistress’s office, Cassie is informed that she is being sent to an orphanage the next morning as her mother is presumed dead.

Booklover Cassie has always found adventures from between the pages of her secret library of books, but is now determined to seek her own adventure by escaping from Fowell House and finding her missing mother.  However, could she be entering a world of danger as children from all over London, including a first former from Fowell House, have gone missing?

It is not long before trouble finds Cassie when she is chased by a gang of creatures carrying knives and nets.  Just as she is about to be kidnapped, she hears a voice telling her to get on the broom she has lifted to defend herself.  Imagine her surprise when she discovers that the voice comes from a cat who has been sent to find her, and that the broom is a witch’s broom which flies them both to safety.  Montague informs Cassie that he has been sent by her aunt, Miranda who has only just learned of her existence.  Oh – and her aunt just happens to be a witch.

Cassie soon finds herself in the village of Hedgely where her aunt is the current Hedgewitch, protecting humans from the faeries who live on the other side of the Hedge, the largest and oldest wood in Britain, situated at the edge of the village.  Whilst Cassie is welcomed by the friendly housekeeper, Mrs Briggs, her aunt Miranda is unfriendly and cold and sets out some rules she is expected to follow, including not entering the Hedge alone.  When she asks about her mother, it is clear that her aunt is not willing to help, so Cassie determines that she will search for her mother on her own.

So begins an incredibly exciting, action-packed adventure as Cassie is drawn inexorably towards the Hedge which holds both nature-filled magic and mesmerising danger.  She finds both friends and enemies in the local coven where she begins her witch-training.  In her search for her mother, will Cassie uncover the truth behind the missing children?  Will she find something that has been missing in her life:  a home, friends and family?  In searching for what she has lost, can she find herself?

Just wow!  This is an utterly captivating story that completely entranced me, reaching the tendrils of its magic from the pages and drawing me into a world that felt irresistibly real.  I adored that the magic was imbued with the beauty and wonder of nature; and, I loved that the Faerie creatures were tricksy and deliciously dark. The unexpected twists and turns had me on the edge of my seat; the danger and deceit gripped me; and, the revelations – oh my goodness:  the revelations!

Cassie is a wonderful young protagonist.  She is determined, curious and courageous.  She is prepared to break the rules for what she believes in, and take risks to help others.  Her kindness towards others is rewarded when she needs help.  I loved the friendships that she forms with her coven friends, Rue and Tabitha. And what can I say about Montague – tetchy, sarcastic – and brilliant! 

The chapter header and interior illustrations are absolutely stunning and really capture the symbiosis between nature and magic, complementing the story perfectly. 

Hedgewitch is a thrilling, magical adventure that is sure to become a firm favourite with readers of 9+.  I absolutely cannot wait for Cassie’s next adventure, Woodwitch.

Do check out the other stops on the Blog Tour:

Blog Tour: The Hunt for David Berman

Written by Claire Mulligan
Cover Illustration by Stephen Colfer
Published by The Moth
on 5th May

Thank you so much to Catherine Ward and The Moth for inviting me to be part of the Blog Tour for The Hunt for David Berman, and for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest opinion. I will be sharing my review and a fascinating guest post from the author, Claire Mulligan where she is sharing a behind-the-scenes glimpse into her life as a writer.

Review

The Hunt for David Berman is a thrilling war time adventure that absolutely gripped me, and which I devoured in a single sitting.  It is a heart-warming and powerful story of incredible courage found through the bonds of friendship and strength in family.

Robert has been evacuated from London to live with his Grandparents on the Scottish Coast.  His father is fighting in the War, and his mother is in the Wrens.  Finding it difficult to adjust from city to farm life, he is keen to explore the caves along the coastline, hoping to find the treasure alluded to by his grandfather, but instead he finds a boy, David, who has been living in the cave.  David is a Kindertransport child who has run away from the cruel farmer he had been sent to live with, and is trying to survive on his own, terrified that he will be captured and returned to Germany and the Nazis.

David has carried something from Germany that he does not know about, and it is a secret that may well get him killed …  something has been stolen, and a secret agent has been assigned to retrieve it for the Nazis, and he is hunting for a boy … 

So begins an exciting, fast-paced adventure as the boys try to keep David a secret from his grandparents; as they find themselves in dangerous situations; as their suspicions are raised at strange sights; and, as they gradually become aware that one of them is being hunted … 

The parts of the story which are set in the Gestapo Headquarters which give more insight into what has been stolen are chilling, and emphasise the very real danger that David will be in should be found. 

Robert and David are incredibly sympathetic, well-drawn characters who show real strength and courage. They form a close bond of friendship built on trust, empathy and kindness.  Even though they come from different countries, they find understanding through their shared experiences of displacement, separation from loved ones and grief, and each offers the other comfort when needed.  I really enjoyed the part nature played in the story as these two city boys come to appreciate and explore the natural environment and, in particular, I loved the new friend that David makes!

This story gives a heart-breaking insight into the devastation that war has on families.  David’s flashbacks to his life in Berlin and his journey to England are incredibly poignant as he finds himself at the mercy of a cruel foster carer, having suffered both loss and separation.  Robert has also experienced separation and loss which he struggles to deal with, and witnesses how grief affects the mental health of someone he loves.  I found the ending of the story incredibly moving, and thought it was a perfect close.

The Hunt for David Berman is an exhilarating, historical spy-thriller with friendship and family at its heart:  a perfect read for fans of historical adventures of 9+.

Guest Post by Claire Mulligan

My Typical Writing Day

For me a typical writing day involves lots of procrastination. I might clean the fridge, hoover under the beds or empty the laundry basket before finally settling down to write. I don’t think that’s an unusual thing, a lot of writers hate looking at the empty page and the expectant flashing cursor so it’s no surprise I actively avoid starting. However, once the computer is on and perhaps a cup of tea is to hand, I can write for quite sustained lengths of time in one sitting. I write in the dining room – don’t for a minute think of a grand room with a long mahogany table, gleaming silver ware and candles – this space is actually a ‘through room’ meaning that every person (and dog) that lives here treks through it several times a day. It’s a less than ideal setting in terms of interruptions but it means I am on hand for all the things that motherhood brings including nice moments like cuddles. It has the advantage of having a wood stove in it so it’s a warm and cosy spot and it’s close to the kitchen for those all-important snacks.

 I try to write a thousand words or more at a time but more often than not I don’t write on a daily basis so my word count is a sporadic thing – sometimes racing along and sometimes sitting sullenly at the same lonely spot for weeks on end.  If it’s been while and I’m feeling a little twitchy about starting I tell myself I am only writing for half an hour, that way if half an hour passes and that’s all the time I get perhaps a couple of hundred words have been written, and that’s good enough. Or if half an hour passes and things are flowing it can then be stretched to an hour or maybe two. I rarely have the luxury of having a whole free day to myself to fill with writing so making time for those half hours and hours is really important. It can be a slow process and sometimes in the evening when the house is quiet, I will try to squeeze in a little work to try and push my writing along.

On the rare days when I do have a block of free time, I can write a lot in one sitting. That’s mainly because I spend quite a bit of my non-writing time thinking about my characters and what’s going to happen next. It’s a bit like having an over-active sourdough starter bubbling all over the place – it’s ready to go! Writing blocks do happen, though I try to counteract this by preparing a fairly detailed plot for the story to begin with. That plan is flexible as things inevitably change and morph as I write but at least it’s a bit of a roadmap to help when things get a little stuck. Another good trick is to end your writing day or session mid-sentence or mid idea, that way (in theory!) you can pick up where you left off. I sometimes write a whole chapter at a time and begin the next one only by a couple of sentences, and that gives me a jumping off point for the next time I open the computer.

In terms of inspiration, it really does come from anywhere! I try to be open to lots of influences and any little flashes of A Good Idea are immediately written into my notebook or failing that, on to my phone. Likewise with song lyrics, lines from poems, conversations (overheard or otherwise) – all can provide that important beginning point which can then lead in all sorts of fantastic directions!

Do check out the other stops on this Blog Tour: